LOS ANGELES — Traditional is the name of the game at Thanksgiving, but this year, take a leap into healthy territory at the table.
No, you don't have to sacrifice taste or the flavors of the season, but you do have to cook with an eye to reduced calories and fat.
It's not difficult if you take some tips and recipes from Paulette Lambert, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition at the California Health & Longevity Institute at the Westlake Village Four Seasons Hotel.
"I do a pretty traditional Thanksgiving but tweak it to be healthier. I've been doing this 30 years, so I have it down," says Lambert, who spent 28 years in her own private nutrition counseling practice before joining the Institute three years ago.
"Healthy food cooked and seasoned correctly can taste wonderful. Just because it's healthy doesn't mean it doesn't taste good."
"We're talking about roasting vegetables with honey and balsamic," she says. "The light pumpkin cheesecake could stand up to any cheesecake. I'd put my delicious apple cranberry crisp up against any apple pie.
"The changes we've made in traditional recipes have affected the calories and fat but not the taste."
Flavor and health are equally important in her food. On the menu will be a roasted fresh turkey (a heritage turkey), with apricot glaze, pear-cranberry sauce, farmer's market salad, lime-glazed roasted yams, light pumpkin-ginger cheesecake, apple cranberry crisp, green beans with roasted pine nuts, roasted winter veggies with honey balsamic glaze, puréed cauliflower and some kind of bread stuffing.
"We do cauliflower purée because it tastes better than mashed potatoes and has more flavor. I typically do an apple, onion and sage bread stuffing with celery and pecans. I use lots of vegetables."
She binds the stuffing with egg whites (for lightness), chicken broth and half the usual amount of margarine (using no-trans-fat margarine) and bakes it separately.
Add wonderful color to the turkey with a sweet and spicy apricot glaze made with fruit-only preserves, jalapeño chiles, wine vinegar, mustard and honey. Brush it on and serve plenty alongside. It's a taste-bud tickler.
The pear-cranberry sauce, a recipe she came up with a decade ago when her mother became diabetic, contains less sugar than traditional ones. She uses fresh pears, for natural sweetness, and vanilla. You can make it three days in advance and refrigerate it.
"I serve it chilled," she says.
A farmers market salad that contains butternut squash is new this year.
"I love roasted butternut squash, as it is such a celebration of the harvest, in combination with pomegranate seeds, walnuts and arugula."
Healthy Thanksgiving cooking tips
■ Do as much ahead as possible, so you can enjoy the day. Make the menu and grocery list, and ideally shop two days before Thanksgiving to have the freshest produce. Buy a fresh or frozen bird, as desired. If you buy a frozen turkey, be sure there's enough time to thaw it.
■ Avoid turkeys that have been injected with preservatives or additives. They are high in salt and might end up having a mushy texture, Lambert says.
■ Rub the turkey with olive oil, salt and pepper before roasting. Sprinkle salt and pepper and squeeze juice of a lemon inside the turkey, if desired. Place diced celery, carrots and onions in the bottom of the roasting pan (and inside the turkey cavity, if desired).
■ For best results, Lambert recommends roasting the turkey at 500 degrees for 25 minutes to sear the outside. Then reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees and cook until a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees or the juices run clear, not pink.
■ Buy an oven thermometer (if you don't already have one) to avoid overcooking the bird.
■ Do not open the oven to check the turkey. It lowers the oven temperature, increases the roasting time and dries out the bird.
■ Do not baste the bird. It doesn't penetrate the skin or make the turkey moister. It just cools down the oven.
■ For a large group, if you have the oven space, consider roasting two smaller 12-pound turkeys instead of one 20-pounder. It's easier and requires less roasting time. Also, consider cooking a small turkey and a boneless, rolled turkey breast, Lambert says.
■ Let the turkey stand 15 to 20 minutes after removing it from the oven before carving to keep the juices from running out and drying out the bird.
■ Don't eat the skin, which is loaded with fat and calories. Be aware that dark meat has slightly more fat than white.
■ Once dinner is finished, remove leftover turkey from the bones, package it and refrigerate it. Use it within three days (same goes for other leftover foods). If you have a lot of leftover turkey, freeze it.
■ Take every shortcut you can for home cooking. "Why not?" Lambert says. "We are all pushed for time."
■ Figure you can reduce oil in most recipes by half. You can get by with 1 tablespoon for sautéing.
■ You can generally cut sugar in recipes by ¼ to 1⁄3, depending on the item.
■ When recipes call for 2 eggs, use 1 egg and 2 egg whites.
■ Use light sour cream instead of fat-free, and use reduced-fat cream cheese, not fat free.
■ Fat-free half-and-half works well in soups.
■ Add more vegetables to everything — brown rice or pasta and other starches — to make it healthy.
■ Use whole-wheat and high-protein pastas. In lasagna, Lambert uses high-protein, high-fiber pastas made with bean flour.
■ Use low-fat cheeses as condiments for taste and flavor. You also can cook with them or use them as toppers: aged Parmesan or feta, or example, instead of blue cheese.